Universidad Autonoma: Design students as change-makers

Design Teacher in Universidad Autonoma //
Bogotá //
3rd July // 

Adriana is working on social design programmes inside Universidad Autónomo in Bogotá. This work is done through the RAD (Academic Design Network), the RAD, facilitates a link with two institutions:
Prospera Social and Fundación Social.

Each semester the students form teams in collaboration with a local community. They go through a design process of first understanding the realities and lives of people, then testing and developing new ideas which the community are invited to own and use. The projects she mentioned include:

  • Reducing the number of children dropping out of school. Many children don’t complete a standard school education if they don’t have good experiences of learning. Adriana’s students worked with children with these insights, and developed a series of literacy games which would help them learn basic skills through play.
  • Busting the myths on sexual health. Many young people have little or no sex education, and believe in things like eating melons stops you getting pregnant. Adriana’s students developed an app which contained all the facts about sex education into a social gaming experience.
  • Designing tools to help children with disabilities in the home. It is hard to access affordable and effective assistive products for people with disabilities. Adriana’s students developed products that could be used by young people to help them sit, move and exercise independently within the home. The products were self-assembly, keeping them cheap, easy to use, and dependant on a connection with the parents.

Examples are available in this book, but not online. Adriana Book

This practice is common in around 30% of universities in the country. They are part of a growing network on socially engaged universities in Colombia.
Here are some images of her students work.

Some of what I learnt from our conversation:

Who decides what is important
For the basis of their projects they use the thematic areas that the Foundation Prosperidad Social and Fundación Social prescribe. These are specific to the country, but also specific to the objectives of the government. These are not always objectives that she or her students  believe are in line with the needs of people they work with.

“The government has a commitment to get more people accessing banking systems, and saving their money. But my students believe there to be many different issues related to people’s economic wellbeing, its not only about getting a bank account. We return to the client with a new question, beyond their original objective”.

It made me think about the role of her design school, and others, in co-creating a Theory of Change which connects more sincerely with the real social needs and issues of people across Colombia. In the university I work with we use the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as a way of understanding the different thematic areas to work in: twww.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

There is an opportunity to go a level below these goals and decide what is most relevant to the context you operate within, and what are the details of what these mean in the countries and regions that we work.

Stop looking outwards and start looking inwards.
We talked about the heritage of creativity, innovative practices, and socially-focussed work in Colombia.

“We have always had creativity, resourcefulness and socially innovative work here. It’s in our culture. The difference is that now we are becoming organised”.

There are more networks emerging that connect people doing similar work, RAD is an example of this. These are creating more opportunities for people to share and learn from each other. She is interested in the trend of people in Colombia becoming more networked. There is a move away from Industrial models of work, towards more networked and relational models. Both in the mentality of the students but also in the way creative people are collaborating within Columbia.

Unification and connectivity was something she talked about in relation to the future of design education and social innovation. She described how creative people here are feeling like more is possible. In the past being it might have been a hobby, where as now people are seeing possibility in the network they are part of and how their work has value in this country.   

Design as a political act
We talked about the role the government has or has not had in creative liberation and socially engaged practice. The government has made a lot of policy commitments to social innovation and more transparent and participatory practices. Adriana viewed these as “in-progress” and not yet fulfilling all their promises. Money running out was often the reason given for certain initiatives or projects not reaching expectations. She described the role of her work and her students work as by-passing our dependency on government, and instead giving power and opportunity to citizens. 

Social innovation practice is not something the government can not own or mandate, they need to enable more people all over the country to freely create ideas and make actions for positive social change.

Seeds and co-jesters
Two initiatives I learnt about, one called semillas (seeds) and the other co-jestors.
Semillas is an initiative that the government established, asking all universities to developed ‘side-spaces’ which give students and staff the opportunity to work together developing research and investigation into a specific theme that has relevance to Colombia. Outside of their regular classes. The success of these Semillas are measured by the government based on the value of their output. For example, how often and in what way are they sharing what they are learning and investigating. This is similar to the movement of Labs inside universities, and it’s interesting to me how these semillas link together to create knowledge that has actionable value. I.e. what are we doing with all that information? How is it contributing to positive change.
Co-jesters are people who are nominated as key leaders within urban and rural communities across Colombia. They are employed by the government and are linked to many of the Social Prosperity programs.

“They can be understood as social promoters. In the Rad-Social workshop, they are the ones who make the link between our students and the families and the people working in the Foundations”

Latin-America resources
When I asked about sources of inspiration and support for her work, she admitted that many of the resources are coming from the USA or Europe. There are resources being created in the region, but they are often for internal use and not shared openly. 

She pointed to the work happening in the state of Nariño in the south west of the country. There municipal government there has created a network called CISNA which acts as a centre for social innovation. There is a team of designers are the heart of the government developing strategies and resources to encourage policy makers to act like designers. www.lohiceconfeeling.com/. This work puts empathy and compassion at the heart of it’s processes. Adriana believes this work would be strengthened by involving more than just designers in the process. 

Designers alone can’t solve all out problems, we need teams of anthropologists, scientists, philosophers etc. Working together across traditional boundaries.


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